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Fine-Tuning Prosthetic Hands to Restore a Sense of Touch
Date:10/14/2009

In rats, researchers create junction between brain and device

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 14 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers say they're making progress toward better connections between prosthetic hands and the brain, potentially paving the way for amputees to do such things as type, sense hot and cold, and touch others.

If new strategies under development work in humans, they "would allow people to have a prosthetic that functions like a normal hand and provides sensory feedback," said Dr. Paul S. Cederna, one of the principal investigators behind the research.

In addition, he said, the research could do the same thing for prosthetic legs.

For the moment, however, it's unclear whether the new findings will translate from rodents, which have undergone testing, to humans. Still, researchers are hopeful. But for now, prosthetic hands continue to have severe limitations.

"The majority of the issues around new high-tech prosthetics are regarding the ability to control the prosthetic and the ability to get feedback from the prosthetic," said Cederna, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the University of Michigan Health Systems and an associate professor of surgery at the university's medical school.

People are able to carry heavy items and push things around, he said. But fine motor skills, such as the ability to type, remain elusive, as does the ability to move individual fingers.

The nerves at the end of the stump where an amputation took place are key, he explained. The brain still controls the nerves, which still carry signals. There's just no hand for the brain to talk to.

"If we can harvest those signals out of the nerve and feed them to the prosthetics, we'd be able to have the brain control the function of the prosthesis," Cederna said.

One approach uses tiny cuffs that wrap around nerves and pick up electrical signals. But the cuffs stop working over time, Cederna
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